Locus Online


21 July 1998

Skiffy Flix
I can't resist any longer, I just have to make fun of Deep Impact and Armageddon.

I welcomed the essay by Timothy Ferris in last week's New Yorker (see Aether Vibrations) as an antidote to the self-congratulatory claims by the producers of Deep Impact and Armageddon concerning their films' scientific accuracy. I'll grant that these films aren't as silly as those Irwin Allen flicks from the '60s and '70s that showed asteroids (or was it comets?) as spherical balls of flame. But that's saying very little.

I don't think much of most SF films. I explain some of my reasons in the short fiction review column that will appear in the August issue of Locus Magazine (which reviews, among other magazines, the special Hollywood issue of F&SF), but I'll expand on some of them here.

The worst thing about Hollywood skiffy flix is that they are all the same. This is partly due to the presumed necessity of dumbing down speculative ideas for an unsophisticated audience, and partly due to the technology of special effects. When a new FX technique is developed, it is shortly exploited by everyone who can figure out a way to use it. (In Hollywood, someone said, everyone wants to be first to be second.) Thus, in SF films of the last couple decades, aliens are routinely slimy, vicious, and loud (even supposedly advanced, intelligence ones like those in Starship Troopers and The X-Files); all space battles are choreographed like the ones in Star Wars; and the spaceships in these films all enter hyperdrive with a similar vertiginous swoosh effect. This paucity of originality struck me most forcefully in Lost in Space, which has all these elements -- most preposterously, the space battle in Earth orbit in the relatively near future of 2050 (or thereabouts). In skiffy flix, the future is always the same. Try to imagine a film that didn't assume starships could get anywhere in half an hour with the flip of a hyperdrive switch. The imaginative latitude we take for granted in written literature has been stamped down in the movies into a set of endlessly recycled space opera cliches.

Further, the mode of SF films is almost always the FX driven adventure. Gattaca and Contact are rare exceptions, and thus aren't considered SF films by many people! As for scientific accuracy, forget it. Most people don't care. I've been bemused all year by the casual confusion between Deep Impact and Armageddon, one about a comet, the other about an asteroid, a distinction that has eluded almost everybody in the popular media. Even the review on a certain well-known SF-web-Site of Deep Impact repeatedly, and incorrectly, described it as about an asteroid. No, it was about a comet.

Asteroid Comet
On the other hand, once I saw Armageddon I must admit that the movies themselves only exacerbate any confusion about the difference between the two. DI's vision of a comet wasn't bad, but A's asteroid was absurd, a gauzy, crystalline thing looking nothing like the dim, pocked hunks of rock we know objects from the asteroid belt to look like.

A further problem with movies in general, at least those designed for maximum box office, is that they idealize and oversimplify even mundane aspects of life, playing to prejudices and pandering to misconceptions for the sake of providing the least challenging, most easily digestible mass market product possible. No need to confuse the audience with the complexities of real life. This is done even when it would be just as easy, from a production standpoint, to do it right. The result is a casual dishonesty offensive to anyone with first hand experience of films' settings or subject matters.

For example. The first five minutes of DI (the more sober of the two Earth impact films) contains a series of howlers, each roughly an order of magnitude worse than the one before, that immediately undermines any pretensions of scientific veracity the film claims for itself.

At the film's opening, a group of school kids is on a hillside looking at the night sky through telescopes. One of them pulls out a flashlight to look at a star map.

No. Any amateur astronomer knows that, to protect your night vision (your eyes' sensitivity to faint light), you would use only a very small light source, typically an ordinary flashlight but with red cellophane wrapped over the end. Or blocked so the only light comes through the red bezel.

Next, one of the students consults with another about spotting stars of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major). While looking through the telescope.

No. The view through a telescope is a small spot of sky; the stars of a constellation are spread out over a wider area. They are looking on a street map of Manhattan for the way to Kansas City.

The students talk about looking for the star Megrez, ''muh-GREZ''.

Well, no. It's MEE-grez. But maybe they're just kids and don't know any better. They probably mispronounce Mozart and Porsche too.

Then the students notice something funny in the telescopic view. We see an insert of the double star Mizar and Alcor -- which is properly visible in the field of a telescope -- and a fuzzy patch next to it.

This is actually a very good image of what a comet looks like through a small scope. Here the problem is, it's so obviously an image of a comet, in a patch of sky where nothing similar could be, that they, or at least their teacher, should have no question about what they're seeing. (It's also pretty bright for a comet that hasn't been discovered yet.)

But they're confused, so they take a picture of the object and send it to a professional astronomer. (I'm afraid I missed the mechanics of how they did that.)

The astronomer, pictured of course in his observatory late at night (while in real life much observation is automated and astronomers are found in offices like anyone else), is seen feeding this photo into his PC and, with a click or two of his keyboard, gets an orbital calculation and display. And sits horrified at what he sees.

This is a very large howler. Because he only has ONE photo. You can't calculate an orbit from one observation; you need at least two.

This blithe absurdity is especially ironic considering the incident this past March (mentioned in Ferris' article) when a newly observed asteroid was predicted, to some small degree of probability, to be on a collision course with Earth. A more accurate calculation the next day (using another observation) reduced the probability from (something like) 1 in a million to 0 in a million. This relatively small adjustment was treated with outrage by the press, who seemed to feel the scientists had betrayed them or at least had demonstrated their incompetence. But it was the press who totally misunderstood the nature of estimated probabilities and the tentative nature of the original announcement.

The worst howler, though, comes after the astronomer is killed in a freak car accident. Months, perhaps a year, go by before an enterprising reporter forces the President of the US to announce the truth about the comet on a collision course with Earth. Somehow, it's been kept a secret all this time.

No no no. Impossible. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of amateur astronomers around the world who devote their lives to searching for comets. Each of them dreams of being the first to announce a new discovery -- and get their name attached to it! If the first guy died in a car wreck, someone else somewhere in the world would have seen the same comet within a day or two. The news would be out. Scientists talk. There would be no keeping it secret. And the orbit really would be calculated pretty quickly. (Ferris also discusses the dishonesty of this portrayal of government secrecy, in both films.)

Now, are some of these objections petty? Or inconsequential? Perhaps some of them are; but they immediately spoiled the movie for me, and it would have been trivially easy to correct most of them, had the producers bothered to consult with a real comet watcher.

That's just one example. Everyone, I suspect, has some area of experience or expertise that they have seen misrepresented in a similar manner. (Has any film about your profession depicted it realistically?) It is like when you read a newspaper article about an incident you were part of. The article never gets it quite right. Most movies don't even attempt to get it right, and don't care when they don't.

Someday I'd like to see a crime drama filmed in the style of a Hollywood skiffy flick. The car chase from LA to New York would take half an hour. When the bad guy's car goes over the cliff at the end (you bother to ask, what cliff in New York?), it bounces to a rest and the crook emerges running. And when the cop hits him with a right across the jaw, the bad guy explodes in a ball of flame.

--Mark R. Kelly

P.S. My Hugo vote this year went to Men in Black, which I only recently saw on videotape. It has a Sheckley-esque zest; it doesn't take itself seriously. And its final reverse-zoom shot up into an alien marble game outdoes even the opening shot of Contact.
  • 16 Jun 1998: Restructing update
  • 21 May 1998: Website changes; K. C. Cole nonfiction
  • 19 April 1998: Website anniversary; Bertelsmann; the evolving Web

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